“A highly organized battalion of funk.” That’s how Skunk, the Fleet Admiral of SCUL, describes his SciFi bicycle chopper gang to me.
“Sometimes we say we make spaceships out of bicycles, that’s another catchphrase that we use,” he adds. “But we usually don’t break the wall and say ‘bicycle.’ We’re starpilots, flying ships on missions.”
Skunk, who never discloses his “civilian” name to me, founded SCUL (which was an acronym at some point, but no longer is) in 1996. The troop of bikers/space enthusiasts/eager welders make their way through the Somerville area every Saturday night from April Fool’s Day to Halloween, often decked in blinking lights and jamming to funk.
Skunk and I meet at the Artisan’s Asylum, which is home to both SCUL headquarters and Skunk’s main gig (building robot sculptures and teaching welding classes). We’re surrounded by SCUL insignia and bikes welded by SCUL members to be taller, larger, and generally more complex than the average two-wheeled vehicle.
Skunk started his own bicycle chopper gang after finding CHVNK666, a similar gang based in Portland, Oregon
“I was so excited about seeing a tall bike for the first time and seeing all these kind of crazy things,” he says. “But I was most excited about seeing the culture that they had kind of built around a bicycle. It seemed to be the nucleus of all kinds of creativity.”
But early in our conversation, I learn not to call them bikes. With SCUL, pilots (riders) mount their ships (bicycles) to complete missions (rides), hoping to score some high fives from civilians (anyone not affiliated with SCUL) and trying to avoid getting derailed by radiation (rain) or a crash landing (that one is self-explanatory).
It’s tempting to assume that SCUL is just a bunch of adults who want to play pretend for a few hours every week. The purpose of the whole operations is to have fun, and for SCUL, that does involve some twisting of reality. Every pilot adopts a moniker and has to stick to the space-inspired lingo. An average mission might lead the pilots to the “North Pole” or “The Moon.”
But at the same time, you can’t ignore how very legitimate SCUL is. Skunk hands me a spiral-bound manual with enough information in it to teach a class. It contains the history of SCUL, starting back when it was a ship in Skunk’s basement, and hundreds of rules that pilots are expected to know and follow. There’s an apprentice-like training program for prospective pilots. And there’s the point system: pilots gain points for each mission, based off elements like the difficulty of their ship, or the number of cups they crush, or if they help with repairs.
“There’s a ton of rules, and there’s tons of responsibility,” Skunk says. “But those rules and responsibilities allow us to be super organized, and really awesome when we’re outside dealing with the public. Being disciplined like that, and practicing those kinds of formations, allows us to cohabitate with Somerville traffic, or pedestrians, and hopefully the rest of the community.”
Every SCUL mission (yes, every mission) has been recorded in a public database, which includes the name of the mission, the pilots involved, and the ships they mounted with their points. About 10 to 20 pilots fly in each mission, and 850 pilots have participated since SCUL’s founding.
Skunk puts in several hours a week to prepare, from planning out roles for each pilot to designing and printing a new mission pin for each mission. A single ship can take dozens of hours to weld and perfect before it’s ready for flight. But Skunk says that SCUL members’ innovation, attention to detail, and commitment are inspiring.
“To manage this over the years, it’s a ton of work. But it pays back like 10 times over because you have this beautiful thing happening, all this creativity,” he says. “Some people see the big picture with us, but a lot of really interesting stuff are little tiny details, like little solutions to engineering problems or repairs, or just some little decoration somewhere that someone did.”
Another thing to know about SCUL is that they don’t try to be anything that they are not. Early on, SCUL leaned more into the “biker gang named ‘skull’” image and blasted heavy metal life support (music) on their rides. But when SCUL replaced Motorhead with Curtis Mayfield and added bonuses for high fives, Skunk says he saw an evolution in the group that matched the members’ enthusiasm.
“I think it was great that we explored that kind of bad side of SCUL,” Skunk says. “It really put a fine point on who we wanted to be. And since then, we’ve always tried to be the good guys, the superhero versions of ourselves. And there’s really not room for anything else.”
That’s the motto of SCUL: “Be a superhero version of yourself.” SCUL is self-proclaimed “highly trained” but “anti-elite,” and inclusive of all gender identities. Skunk says being a superhero version of yourself doesn’t involve changing your personality to fit in SCUL; instead, it’s bringing out the best in yourself and in others.
“It still has to be you, you can’t just be a superhero, you don’t just turn into something else,” Skunk says. “Whatever it is that makes you incredible, that’s what we want to polish out and make shine on Saturday night with your freaky, funky costume or in the background, doing what you need to do. Whatever it is, you know, and I think that’s important, the individuality of the person. And bringing out the best in that person is a really fun exercise for yourself, and to help nurture that in others.”
If you see SCUL around, especially on a radiation night, look for the superhero in the shower curtain cape, riding a chopper named Cloudbuster amongst his fleet, and stick out your hand for a few high fives.
Civilians who wish to apply to become a pilot can contact SCUL at firstname.lastname@example.org
This story appeared in the Sept/Oct/Nov print issue of Scout Somerville.